John Smith

Private, USMC, USS Colorado

Private John Smith, USMC, was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Marine Corps at Philadelphia on 16 October 1860.[1]

Following Smith's career through the USMC muster rolls, he was sent to HQ, Washington DC on 17 October 1860 from the Philadelphia Barracks. On 26 November 1860 he was attached to the Marine Guard of the Washington Navy Yard. On 18 May 1861, he was sent back to HQ. On 20 May 1861, he was detached and ordered to Charlestown, MA and check in there on 22 May 1861. From there he was attached to the Marine Guard of the USS Colorado on 3 June 1861.

The Colorado was on blockade duty off Pensacola during the 18 months the Confederates held the Pensacola Navy Yard. While the yard was in Confederate hands, flag officer William Mervine, who commanded the Gulf Blockading Squadron at the time, noted that a vessel known as the Judah was being fitted out and armed at the wharf in the Navy Yard. Fearing that she was intended to be used as a privateer, Mervine decided that she must be destroyed and the guns in the yard spiked, no matter the human cost it may potentially command.

Smith had been put on restriction two weeks earlier at a summary court martial for sleeping on post and as a chance to redeem himself, he was given the opportunity to join the boardings parties being assembled.

On the night of 13 September 1861, four boats left the Colorado with 100 sailors and marines aboard to carry out Mervine's plans and rowed across Pensacola Bay in silence to reach their destination around 3:30 AM the next morning. After a firefight with crew on the Judah, Smith was the first to board her. His "distinguishing mark" (white hat) marking him as a Colorado crew member fell off while he was boarding her and was bayoneted through the stomach by accident by a shipmate and died as a result. His body was recovered and taken back to the Colorado after the Judah was burned.

RADM David D. Porter called the burning of the Judah in his book Naval History of the Civil War, "...without doubt the most gallant cutting-out affair that occurred during the war. The boarding party had not only the crew of the schooner to contend with, but there was a force of over a thousand troops stationed a short distance off, that could be called upon at a moment's notice to drive away intruders."

John Smith was apparently an alias per Charles Boyton's 1868 book The History of the Navy During the Rebellion and had enlisted to escape some dark secret in his civilian life:

"...A strange and sad fate befell the first man, a marine, who boarded the rebel schooner. In springing on board he lost his white cap, the distinguishing mark of the boats' crews, and was bayoneted through mistake by one of his own comrades. He was known by the name of Smith. By the letters found in his bag after his death, it was found that Smith was an assumed name. There were letters from his mother, filled with sad solicitude for his safety and general welfare, breathing all a mother's tenderness. There were others from his father, stating how his dearest hopes for himself and children had been blighted. The oldest brother is in the grave. "You have chosen this roving life, and the youngest, our only prop, may be taken away." He had received a classical education, and the steps by which he had descended are among the secrets of a darkened household. He was not among the young men who went forth from colleges and theological seminaries and luxurious homes, to lay their all on their country's altar, but he had evidently entered the service in order to hide himself from the world..."

His real name has so far been lost to time if the above is true and that it is his alias that is engraved on the white marble tombstone at Barrancas National Cemetery. He had been in the Marine Corps for ten months and twenty nine days.


Barrancas National Cemetery, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Pensacola, FL. Section 15, plot 900.

Smith's headstone, being typical of the era, reads U.S.N. rather than U.S.M.C. Despite the comment on Find A Grave, the September 1861 Marine muster roll for the Colorado lists his rank as private. It would have been a long time for a marine to make rank in 1861, and the fact that Smith was found guilty for sleeping on post at a summary court-martial two weeks earlier wouldn't have help much either.

Per a affidavit from a Colorado shipmate for the widow of Boatswain's Mate Charles Lamphere's pension, the three Colorado KIAs were originally buried on Santa Rosa Island. At some point before 1870, their bodies were moved to Barrancas.



Awards and Memorials



[1] United States Muster Rolls of the Marine Corps, 1798-1937. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.